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An old man and his tin can vases

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 18, 2008

By Andrew Loh

Tucked away in a little corner in the courtyard in front of the Chinese temple at Waterloo Street, an old man sits and works patiently on his vases—vases made out of discarded aluminium cans.

Under the umbrella which shields him from the rather hot Tuesday afternoon sun, he waits for passing customers, hoping to make a few sales today.

As I watch him, I wonder what is going through his mind, as he twists together strands of tin foils he has cut out from the tin cans he collected to make his vases.

I stand up and walk over to his makeshift stall.

He is at first oblivious to my presence, as he concentrates on his work. I squat down to take a closer look at his vases, all neatly displayed in front of him. “These are really beautiful”, I say to him. He smiles and tells me that it takes him several hours to make just one.

I notice that they are made from Coca Cola, Tiger Beer, Guinness Stout and various other soft drink cans. Perhaps he senses that I do not really know what they are (which is quite true), so he explains: “They are vases. See here, you can put flowers in them.” Indeed, with the flowers in them, they do look rather appealing and attractive.

“How much is this one?”, I ask him as I hold up one of those medium-sized vases. “Five dollars,” he says. I survey his collection, finding it hard to decide which to buy. In the end, I choose the Tiger Beer one because of the colour—blue—it looks the best to me.

I hand him a ten dollar note. While he looks for change, I ask if it is ok for me to take pictures of his cans. “Yes, sure,” he says, adding that the local media has been here before. “They interviewed you?” I say. I was curious. But he just smiles and says nothing.

“Did you learn this from someone?” I ask him. “No lah,” he replies in Hokkien. “This is my own creation,” and grins proudly.

In my head, several questions are itching to be asked—how old is he? How long has he been doing this? How is business? Does he have problems with the authorities who may consider this illegal hawking?

“I am 80 years old and have been doing this for almost three years already,” he answers. “It’s hard to make a living but I get by.”

“How many do you sell a day?”

“About 2 or 3.”

“Do tourists buy from you? Or locals?”

“Mostly locals, Chinese who come to the temple.”

“It’s quite hot to be here the whole day. How long do you stay each day?”

“I come here in the morning and I leave in the afternoon.”

“But what happens if it rains?”

“Rain how to sell?” he laughs.

“You don’t have a licence for this, right?”

“No lah.”

“What happens when the ti-gu (health inspectors) come? Do they come often?”

“Yah, sometimes they come two or three times a week. Sometimes they ask me to pack up. If they do, I pack up lor. Give them face lah. But sometimes they also leave me alone.”

I find out that he has a daughter and that he used to do “some small business” before he started making vases out of tin cans.

“I have a friend who offered me a shop space in Pasir Panjang without rent for one year. But I prefer to stay here because the shop isn’t at a good location. I don’t know how business will be over there”, he says.

“You’ve been here almost three years. I guess you’re more familiar with the place here too”.


As we chat, passersby look curiously at us. A lady stops and looks at his vases. “Buy one lah,” he urges the lady in his gentle, soft manner. She seems interested at first but then walks away.

“Not easy to sell, huh?” I say.

“There was one time some ladies bargained with me. They say how can I sell one for five dollars. They wanted one dollar for each vase. How to survive if I sell one vase for one dollar? One meal nowadays already cost $5!”

“Yah, it would be hard to survive on that,” I replied. “Especially when you invest so much time and effort for each vase you make. And you don’t sell that many either.”

He smiles.

Throughout the entire conversation, he continues to twist the strands of tin foil with his fingers—and ever so patiently, he would apply glue to them and stick them to the main “body” of the vase.

As the afternoon wears on under the hot sun, a family stops at his stall. The mother picks up one of the vases and looks at it. She says something to her daughter. I hear the father utter the word “handmade”.

The old man looks up at them and, as he did earlier, urges them to buy one.

This time, his luck is better. The mother and daughter discuss which one to buy and settle on the one with the Hello Kitty sticker. The old man smiles, takes their $10 note and gives them back $5.

I feel happy for him. It is always nice to know that your work is appreciated and that people would pay you for that too.

But more importantly, each dollar from each vase he sells perhaps gives him a little peace of mind about tomorrow – in this ever-changing, fast-paced Singapore that he lives in.

If you happen to be at Waterloo Street, do stop by his little makeshift stall. And if you can afford it, do buy one of his vases.

To me, his vases symbolise and remind me of virtues such as patience, hard work, graciousness – and beauty.

Simple the vases may be—but they are the work of the gentle hands of an affable old man.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

Read also: Why did I procrastinate? by Lilian Lee and A Stranger, My Friend by Zyberzitizen.



12 Responses to “An old man and his tin can vases”

  1. Dr.Huang said

    Hi Andrew,
    We should always remind ourselves and the authorities that there are many more like this gentleman who are stuggling to make ends meet.

    Thanks for highlighting this to us.


  2. Andrew Loh said

    Hi Doc,

    If I recall correctly, Vivian Balakrishnan once asked, not too long ago, whether we should pity those who are picking up cardboards and tin cans to make a living. I believe he said they were “self-reliant” or something to that effect. Will try and find that quote.

    In the meantime, you are right. There are many who are just making ends meet – and they are our elderly and weak.

    As Martyn See once showed us: Nation Builders

    Andrew Loh

  3. zz said

    Beautiful piece. Makes you wonder about the disparity and disconnect between teenagers going on expensive shopping trips and the old man in the article.

  4. goh said

    to all Ministers & top Civil servant,

    with yr big mthly pay cheque, what is five dollar to u. u can afford to buy 5 handmade vases from him every month to give to anyone right? or u prefer to keep those money for yourself so that you feel more secure when you sleep at night . majulah singapura .

  5. boogeyman said

    Self reliant yes….but more like a battle for survival everyday. On a day he does not sell anything, he probably have to go to sleep starving. He probably scrimps and saves every 5 dollars he makes to cover for bad days. How many people truely understand and experience what he is going through.

    He doesn’t have the option of buying food as and when he wants to, much less clothes, shoes, PSP, XBox, handphone, etc that kids nowadays consider as default items they should have.

    Every can is his life, even vase and plant he makes is part of his life. The best thing we can do, is to buy a little bit of this man’s life, let him live with some dignity in his twilight years. The is a proud man standing on his own 2 feet, relying on nothing but his own hands and mind and ability, nothing that $1.96m/year will ever understand or even bother to think about.

  6. Dr.Huang said

    Hi Andrew and all,
    There old men and women working around each office building as cleaners.
    They do not choose to while away their twilight years sweeping floors and washing toilets.
    They would have prefered to be playing with their grandchildren or chit-chatting in the coffeeshop like everyone else.
    Why doesn’t the govt do more for these Singaporeans?
    The going rate for a cleaner is now $600 and going down fast! How does the old man and old woman cleaning my building downstairs survive?
    I do give them AngPows during festive seasons and also share some foods and tidbits with them occasionally.
    It is sad!


  7. Alan Wong said

    Compared to our cabinet ministers, I must say that this 80-year old man is definitely much more resilient and noble in earning his own keep. At the very least, he should have asked for a public assistance scheme to be pegged to 80% of the pay of the lowest 8 professions.

    Sometimes I wonder whether the 2% GST increase which is collected by the Gahmen and supposedly to help the poor has in any way really help those people who are really in need or it merely adds to the coffers for the Gahmen to dispense it in any way they deem fit.

    Or perhaps in reality the additional revenue collected is actually helping those who really needs the least help such as contribution to the extra pay for our talented world class Ministers.

    Is there any way of finding out where the increased GST monies actually goes ? I would be pleasantly surprised if our PAP Ministers can come out with a clear answer.

  8. Daniel said

    Alan Wong, the strange thing is that the GST budget issue is not even mention in newspaper anymore since the case of Selamat. Thank to Selamat, the government has successfully moved on on the accountability of GST surplus and everyone has forget about justification of GST hike. Is the GST budget surplus been used to bail out more banks instead ?

    For people interest in life of famous dictator who was elected as spokesperson for common people but finally end up as double-standard dicator due to absolute power, take a read about life of Oliver Cromwell,

    This dictator lives a life very similar to LKY and his coffers. But what happen to him in the end ? His body was dug up and hung. His head is chopped off and be played like football for over century.

  9. aygee said


    i remember that along with the GST increase, the govt reduced corporate tax, in line with HK’s reduction as well.

    then, to maintain a balanced budget, they raised the GST instead (because we cant really protest about it, can we?).

    just to make it nicer to swallow, thats why they say its for the poor.

    yes, now that they’ve miscalculated, i really wonder how much they will really spend on the poor.

    HK govt also had a surplus – but they made immediate announcements to spend on that surplus – giving tax breaks all round, spending more on practically all fronts. even completely stopped taxing wine. just to balance the budget.

    But i guess u dont hear this enough in Singapore eh? i even heard the almost negligible flu outbreak affecting children here has gotten sensationalist coverage in Singapore. Either that or the terrible pollution, or Edison eh?

  10. Gary Teoh said

    I remember Lee Kuan Yew said there are no beggers in Singapore after he visited New York City

  11. MinsterMental said

    Good stuff, its kinda of sad to watch pretty woman five times over the same channel, and watch some fool introduce eating places and how the rich are living the high life.

    The local news papers are out of this world living in a fiction factory kinda of mode where fairy tales are conjured up for the masses.

    Its really refreshing to read up on agree with what is actually going on in Singapore. (The truth is sweet!)

    I guess, if you want the truth, you got to seek it….. and you aint gonna find it in our news papers.

    The internet, blogs and forums are the place to be for information.

    News papers are the thing of the past laced with fairy tales and happy endings.

    Every MP should know who needs aid in his area and go forward to provide them with the assistance.

    I believe they have never worked in a MNC before where we are told to be PRO active and not reactive.

    Setting up commitees and coming up with new slogans is a thing of the past. Dont think it will work in this day and age.

    Ever wondered why we need to pay TV licence when we are not the ones broadcasting ?

  12. ganchau said

    Wow! Very creative! Will walk over there from my home one day and buy four vases from him as gifts for overseas friends. What a good souvenir to give away – one that reminds our guests of our creativity, resourcefulness and never-say-die attitude, qualitites that make Singapore what she is today.

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